Excerpt - Thrive Rayas Dreaming

Thrive Rayas Dreaming, Thrive Colony Corps Adventures book 4.

Rayas offers a singular prize - the Dream.

Last-settled of the Diaspora colonies, Rayas was privately funded by California refugees in Mexico. They couldn’t bankroll the immense settler ships that bore a quarter million souls apiece. And the terraformers were long gone.

Instead they sent teens, trained en route using an AI, the Dream. This virtual reality teaches every science and technology, quickly.

Students also relive Earth history first-hand as a video game. In Renaissance Florence, beat the Black Death and study under Michelangelo. Sail the Caribbean smuggling drugs, or master the ninja arts in feudal Japan.

The Dreamers turned out a bit…squirrelly.

Ben Acosta hopes to train crews using the Dream, in a new Colony Corp Academy. He offers Sass Collier the opportunity to found the school. They visit Rayas to perform their due diligence.

Sass’s Lunar lover Gabe hosts as salesman in chief.

The project gives Ben a fresh chance to evaluate Sass’s judgment calls. Because if Luna taught them anything…

Rayans lie. What dark secrets lurk within the Dream?

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Platystemon tipped her head back, to marvel at the top of a redwood in the magical forest. The Dream’s virtual reality had never before seemed so vivid, so…dreamy.

She reached out her arms to encompass her world. Not simply MAD-C, the hodgepodge space orbital hanging above planet Rayas, but Artemis City on Luna, where she’d lived the past few years, and all the lonely light years in between. As her thoughts touched any one thing, she fell outward from there to infinity.

The golden glowing motes grew thicker, wafting in the forest around her like fireflies, or pixies. Their floral scent reminded her of roses on Luna, or the pinkish bacterial mats near the creche playground when she was a child. She reached out in wonder to catch one in her hand. It popped like a soap bubble.

Suddenly she was no longer in the forest, but laying in the Santa Barbara, the ship that carried her to Luna. After the agony of childbirth, brownish blood smears everywhere, she held her miraculous tiny baby in her arms. And her face burned with shame. She cringed from her boyfriend Dill Brisbane’s gaze.

The child wasn’t his.

The glowing orbs clustered closer, and Dill’s eyes flew wide. He extended a tentative finger to touch the mesmerizing curled fingers of the infant, with their minuscule fingernails. “He’s a miracle. Perfect!”

Getting pregnant, having a baby accidentally in space, shouldn’t have been possible. All the babies on all the colony worlds were conceived and gestated in vitro. The rare pregnancies miscarried, nature’s abortion of a nonviable fetus. But her baby was perfect.

Aside from having the wrong dad.

“I’m so sorry, Dill!” she sobbed. “It didn’t mean anything! I just —”

Dill paid no attention to her upset, enraptured with the infant. His face glowed almost as warmly as the floating fairy lights. “We have a son. Can I hold him?”

She lightly swung her legs off the gurney to sit up. Her body felt strong and agile, not a trace of the wear and tear of childbirth. Dill sat beside her and took the child with infinite gentleness. His big hand encompassed the baby’s head on his palm, but his touch was gentle, deft, delighted.

He wouldn’t be delighted when he knew. “Zombat is the father.”

Dill laughed and shot her a look of absolute love. “More than one man can love a baby, Platy. He’s mine too. Isn’t he? Because you’re mine. You’ll see. It’s all good.”

“You forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Dill said lightly, as though her concern didn’t matter in the slightest. His eyes drank in Warp again, entranced, their son. “You discovered something we never knew. A natural one g pregnancy can succeed in a spaceship.”

She huffed a laugh. Leave it to the engineer to find the mechanics the interesting part. “I don’t recommend it.”

Yet even as she said it, she realized it wasn’t true. The discomfort of this new person growing within, the fear and worry, the agony of labor, the smell of his newborn head, this experience bonded her to Warp in a way that decanting a mechanized gestation chamber never could. And now with the baby cuddled in her arms again, the shame vanished. She set him on the floor, now a rambunctious five-year-old. Warp eagerly tried to trap fireflies in his hands, but they flew through his skin.

I created a boy. And Dill loves us both.

“Platy!” The Dreamer Gabe’s voice broke into her reverie, now suddenly back amongst the towering redwoods. Warp’s giggles faded into the distance. “You promised not to come here alone.”

“Whyever not?” She drank in the redwoods in rapture, the glowing motes now friends she wanted to visit with. She reached out again and Gabe’s big hand caught her own.

“Come away, daughter.” Gabe’s endearing St. Bernard features appeared younger than her own.

Yet he was her father. He wasn’t ashamed of her. Though her mother remained adamantly ashamed of him. Is that where I learned shame for Warp.

“I want to stay. There’s so much more to learn.”

But the redwoods vanished. They stood now in the Dream’s classroom, one of the science labs Platy dreaded. Learning pole dancing was easy, joy made motion. Mastering the math, physics, and chemistry of terraforming had been torture. She failed spectacularly in the only industry of Rayas — converting the icky microbial mats to an Earth-like biosphere. Disgraced, her mom sent her away to Luna as the ship’s steward, good for nothing but housekeeping, never to return while her mom still lived. Sorry, Mom, got back a couple decades early.

“Platy, this is important,” Gabe said earnestly. “Don’t come looking for trouble. Are you listening?”


Chapter 1

The particolored surface of Rayas flashed past in a blur as they came down for a landing. Sass Collier stood transfixed at the foot of the dining table on Merchant Thrive, wishing she were on the bridge, making this historic landing on a new colony world.

Merchant was Ben Acosta’s Colony Corps flagship. His first mate Judge Frampton piloted today, or possibly Ben himself. Unlike her ill-fated hubris on arrival at Earth last year, she didn’t even rate knowing who was at the con. She owned and led the original Thrive for over a dozen years. But now she was captain of nothing, a beggar in space.

She needed to prove herself on this mission if she ever wanted to helm another ship.

“Collier, plonk your ass down.” That was Ben’s husband Cope, at the head of the table, CEO of Thrive Spaceways Inc., ranking member of the off-duty oglers in the galley. “You’re blocking the view.”

Sass grimaced apology to the group, and moved her seat sideways to keep her head out of their view. But her embarrassment quickly fled in the wonder of the half-wall image before her. Merchant sliced into cloud cover now half the time, towering puffy mountains of dusky violet, streaming yellow and orange fire from the heat of their passage. Lightning forked green in the distance.

Then they exploded out of the cloud over mauve ocean under the rose sky. The Rayas microbial mats didn’t seem to float as islands on this sea. But in a trice they were over colored ground again as the ship continued braking. Or perhaps these were floating ecosystems, she couldn’t tell. Soon they flew through the sunset, flaming green against a rosy-purple backdrop, and the planet blackened beneath them. No, something glimmered below, then outright glowed, a white tinted faintly with cyan.

“Interesting,” their physicist Teke noted, bald with golden skin, as all Denali. “Why would a microbial ecosystem invest energy in bioluminescence?”

“I defer to Eli,” John Copeland replied, lanky from Mahina gravity stretch. Eli Rasmussen’s team of terraforming experts rode their other ship, Psyche. Sass bet they were gabbing a mile a minute. Merchant carried the engineering geeks. “But the locals might be burning at landscape level.”

The ship flew backwards, the rear engines braking. This fire died away by the time they caught up to sunrise, the crazy quilt ground quickly emerging from the murk, its colors ever more vivid. They’d bled off speed, with not a jounce or bobble on the way down. Now they slowly flipped end for end, the view slowly swooning before them, but any gravity effects canceled by their inertial dampeners. There was an art to doing this so smoothly that no one suffered tummy distress, not even from the view.

Ben piloted the ship, Sass concluded ruefully. She taught him to fly once. He’d long since left her in the dust.

From here, they flew in ‘airplane mode’ as she thought of it, though Merchant’s stubby wing fins added no lift. They dove into a towering thunderstorm, with more of the disturbing green lightning. Sass tensed, breathing shallowly, as though her own hands were on the helm. A brief nimbus of green fire told her they had indeed caught an electric bolt. But the shields held steady, and the conn. And they emerged safely through rainbows, far lower than they’d entered. From this altitude, she could appreciate the size of enormous ragged mountains shielding a subtropical valley from harsher weather to the north.

Huh, like the tree-lines of Earth, the gaudy mats ended partway up the mountains. Snow-caps showed peachy. And that sulfurous golden river was probably an actual river, draining the range. A glint beside it drew her attention to the surface toe-hold, the settlement. Or perhaps the surface labs. Most of the Rayans still lived in orbit at this stage of taming the planet. Rayas was youngest by far of the Diaspora colonies.

Ben’s voice came over the ship address. “Away party to the hold. Prep for landing.”




“Alcaldesa Hess.” Ben Acosta greeted the eldest of the waiting trio of women first, holding out his pressure suit gauntlet to offer a handshake. He’d met the other two before.

“What the hell is that on your shoulder?” the elderly barracuda returned, her accented English closer to Denali than Mahina. She and her companions wore hazmat suits, air pressure not being the environmental challenge here. Rayas offered plenty of air, but none of it safe to breathe.

Ben introduced his translator for the day, the digitally sapient mink Fidget, followed by the other members of his away team. Alone of his party, Fidget wore no space suit.

“Call me Principal.” That was accented in Spanish. “Or just Shady. Everyone else does. Why are you here instead of MAD-C?”

Mayor Shady Hess wasn’t one for niceties, a jarring trait in the leader of a frontier town. Taken aback, Ben replied, “You’re a colony world. This is your colony.”

“Yes, yes. But the population is in orbit. Surely they explained that!”

The lead botanist Eli Rasmussen murmured in his ear, off-speaker on comms. “Ben, I think she’s the principal investigator. Not the mayor.” Like everyone on the Thrive team, Eli appeared 25, gawkier than most, but was likely older than Hess.

Ben’s understanding of the social milieu took a radical veer, and he nodded subtle thanks to Eli. “My terraforming team wishes to understand what you’re up against. We’re from a colony world ourselves. We understand how challenging your planet appears.”

“Then why are you talking instead of him?” Shady demanded, pointing to Eli.

Bitch. Ben smiled and bowed for Eli to address his peer from another world.

“I’m Dr. Eli Rasmussen of Mahina University, landscape botany. My associate Zelda specializes in atmospherics, and Porter in agronomy — substrates. This is our,” he paused to make a show of counting, “seventh world. Omitting space platforms and cold airless moons, of course. Lacking from the terraforming perspective.”

Ben tuned them out while they played academic one-upmanship. He turned instead to the two women he’d met on Luna, both on the later edge of middle age. “Dr. Zephyr, Lupe, good to see you again. Medicine must be a real challenge.”

“Not really,” Zephyr cut him off. “But you need to watch for the color of our hazmat suits.” Her garb was a particularly ugly shade of blue-purple. “If you see any on the landscape, it’s probably too late for you. But contact me immediately.”

He smiled, at a loss, and pointed at her. “Too late?”

Zephyr swung an arm to indicate the view, which looked to Ben as though his daughter cut mismatching scraps of felt and strewed them across the ground. The hard-top they and the ships stood on, appeared recently burnt, their steps kicking up papery ashes. “The other microbial mat communities are fairly harmless. But this purple kills at a distance. The spores reach kilometers, ten klicks in a storm. At the moment, they’re keeping us to the one settlement.”

“Too much hassle to burn it off,” the engineer Lupe agreed dourly. “At that radius.”

“How would it bother me through a spacesuit?” Not that Ben doubted them. Anyone who’d visited Denali appreciated what implacable foes microbes could be.

“They digest plastics,” Zephyr explained. “You might be fine. But to enter your ships again, you’ll need decontamination.”

“We use temperatures around 200 Kelvin plus a salt and carbonic acid wash. Good enough?” This worked for ‘bio-locks’ on Denali. Ben knew the problem intimately. Sass hadn’t allowed him back on the ship until he solved it, early in his space career. “We’ll have to calibrate our instruments against yours.” He nodded a smile to Lupe.

If Lupe ever smiled, he’d never seen it. The Rayan engineer looked like a belligerent tree stump. By contrast, Zephyr’s slender and cool professionalism shone through her purple trash-bag ensemble. In lieu of eyebrows, both still bore arcs of metallic implant disks from Luna. “Are you still with Paul — Zombat?” Sass hazarded, perhaps trying to uplift this conversation to a social level. Ben glanced away, having already covered this ground with Paul.

Zephyr grimaced. “No. I’m giving him space.”

“Kids are hard,” Ben sympathized. “Yours, mine, and ours. I have five. On a good day, we laugh about it. On a bad day, we divorced for a few years. We got back together. Most don’t.”

He was pleased to see Zephyr nod gratefully, and Sass took the hint. Time to move this party along. Ben led toward the ramp out of the parking lot. “Do you have to burn the spaceport clear often?”

“Daily,” Lupe agreed. “You’ll have visible fuzz on your ships by morning. Don’t worry, space kills it.”

“Cold, or lack of air?”

“Dessication gets them first.”

“Good to know. Can I skip the acid wash?” No.

He trotted up the ramp to the raised causeway, like a boardwalk above the colored mats. The boards seemed like typical foamcrete construction, offering a good meter clearance above the mats. He jogged past the burnt slope out of the spaceport hole to reach undisturbed colors, and leaned on the railing to study the wildlife. His bodyguard Kaol kept up, the women strolling with more dignity.

At this particular spot, beige and chartreuse communities met, in fractal whorls along the edge — these two seemed to like each other. He snapped a picture of that, then stepped onward a few meters to a meeting between more charismatic magenta and milky green. For whatever reason, these communities did not mingle, the edge between them a jagged line of brown like dried blood. He crossed the boardwalk to check the other side. The magenta seemed to meet every other color with a brown verge. But milky green mingled with some. It turned black where it met a mat of peach.

Examined closely, the colors in the middle of each community weren’t uniform. Blobs of constituent colors rose into a bumpy surface. They reminded him of petrie dishes in high school, the revolting result of swabbing mouth or toilet and growing the bacteria. Though the petrie dishes favored Mahina mushroom hues, like everything else.

Eli told him Earth enjoyed billions of years of bacteria as the apex life form, before more complex single-celled organisms evolved, bigger ones with internal specialized organelles — nucleus, mitochondria, chloroplasts, and such. Eyeing the slimy mats uneasily, Ben wondered how scientists could possibly tell, billions of years later. Human remains turned to dust inside a thousand years. How are you even now scribbling your history onto Rayas geology? Rock color, he guessed.

The Denali hunter Kaol struggled to maintain his situational awareness, drawn instead to study the mats even more intently than Ben. Hunters were the naturalists in the jungles of Denali, and Kaol had studied the planet Sylvan as well. The boy from desert Poldark wouldn’t learn as much. The officer grinned and waved a hand, inviting the hunter to look his fill. Ben leaned against the railing to study the people-scape instead.

Another hundred or so meters along the causeway, the settlement proper huddled, the usual habitat domes built on platforms on pilings. They favored opaque khaki, with occasional window triangles. The temperature here was pleasant, maybe five degrees cooler than the shirtsleeve environment Ben favored on ship. At this latitude, daytime temperatures wouldn’t vary much.

He wondered aloud, “No greenhouses?”

“Wasn’t worth it,” Lupe provided sourly. “We pack all this up and retreat to orbit once a year or so. Geoengineering is hard on the equipment.”

“That’ll never work,” Kaol murmured, fortunately on their private comms channel instead of aloud. No, the hunter had little formal education, but his outdoor upbringing in the ferocious wilds of Denali granted him conviction. The Denali called their equivalent of this gunk ‘bakkra,’ and the natives even cultivated it on their skin.

Eradicating bakkra was not an option. And the idea of any terrestrial ecosystem edging out the native stuff was a bad joke. If the Earthlings nuked the entire planet to start over, bakkra would still have the last laugh. Billions of years of evolution provided the native microbes a genius regarding their habitat that Earth-evolved life could never match.

That’s why Ben wanted to visit the surface first, to find out whether the Rayans really believed they could terraform this planet. A lifeless, airless moon, his own Mahina was child’s play compared to the problem of displacing an established biome. Even Earth’s microbes remained alive and well, doing far better than ‘higher organisms.’ As Eli reminded him yesterday, even Ben’s body contained ten times as many microbes as Ben-cells, which made him squirm. Microbial lifespans, days compared to the years of higher-order organisms, permitted them to evolve quickly. The Rayas suite filled micro-niches as far as the eye could see. His own degree was engineering, and his life work lay in space. But even Ben suspected the peachy snowcapped mountains were artistically tinged by bacteria, not just chemistry.

“What’s your estimated time to terraforming completion?” he asked Zephyr and Lupe. He kept as neutral a tone as he could manage, given that he and Kaol already knew the answer to be, when hell freezes over. Unless they got lucky and some mutant Earth yeast displaced the native crud.

The women he’d met on Luna exchanged a glance. Zephyr volunteered guardedly, “We’re still searching for an enabling breakthrough. Or method.”

“I heard that!” Hess yelled. “No defeatist talk!”

“Yes, apologies, Shady!” Zephyr leaned on the railing beside Ben, and kept her voice down. “She’s been searching for that breakthrough for sixty years. Ideas welcome.”

Kaol, usually shy with the bodyguard knack for blending into the background despite his bulky shoulders, accepted the invitation. “What uses have you found for the microbe communities? It’s what, two meters deep here? Some kind of useful peat at the bottom? Can it do your mining for you? Concentrate useful metals?”

Lupe shrugged. “There used to be a shade of red that advertised where to find iron deposits. But the neutron bombs killed them off. We kept the satellite plats. At the bottom, there’s organic goop. Sterilize it, then isolate nutrients for hydroponics in orbit. The…” She searched the undulating fields of color to find a sweet pastel yellow. “That one has enough roughage to make foamcrete from.” She stomped their decking. “You know. Stuff.”

“The mining is good?” Ben pressed.

“Asteroids are easier.”

Seemed the Rayans got precious little use out of their ugly landscape. Ben’s other big question was their commitment to the cause. That answer he wouldn’t get from the women sent away to Luna, a penalty assignment. The academics having fallen into bickering, he led the way again, toward the community of tent domes.

Paul had given Ben a brief intro to surface operations before they warped into the system, and nothing so far countered his briefing. At first the colonists insisted on living on their new planet, and brought as many as five thousand down to live — and die. The first generation of children, just older than Platy, was savagely thinned by accidents before creche operations were transferred back to MAD-C, their ship in orbit. They’d learned to extract the raw materials they needed for expansion and applied them — in orbit. Nowadays, the outpost here amounted to a few hundred scientists, with bigger teams roving for resource extraction. But the population remained in orbit.

Yeah, this was another colony that cried out for better real estate. But which real estate? And could they pay for it? If they could truly train engineers and physicians, cost-effectively and at will, then maybe so.

The familiar question twinged his conscience — who died and left you God? But this was his business. How could he extract value from this colony, and give sufficient value in return?

If the Dream truly offered the training advantage he hoped, the Rayans could write their own ticket. For that, he could justify giving them Sanctuary, Cantons, or a new home in Pono’s rings. Hell, maybe they could even master beautiful Sylvan. Yet Zephyr, Lupe, and Platy attended college on Luna. Things didn’t quite add up.


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